The path of self-compassion

I’m lucky enough to be in both a real-time and online community that is made of awesome, and one of the awesomest bits is my friend Michel, who shared a bit today on the Googleface about self-compassion.  That is, as another wise woman commented, the ability to treat yourself as you would treat a dear friend, rather than berating yourself.  Also, allowing yourself to have the emotions you’re having without judging or suppressing them.

Naturally, the angle I bring to this is the body.  From years of practice, I now know that the first place to look for how I’m feeling – i.e., emotionally – is to how I’m feeling in my body.  It’s been instructive to get to know what that looks and feels like, and it’s also a super-useful alarm system.  Because boy, is it easier to figure out what I’m feeling physically than emotionally, and if I can start with the body and go from there, it’s kind of a direct route.  And, in the best of circumstances, when I start paying attention to what I’m feeling, keep listening, and trace it, I can figure out what it’s about – and perhaps even solve it in the moment.  It isn’t always solvable, of course, but in my experience, even acknowledging the emotion takes away some of its force, allows it to move so that other things can take its place.

Just yesterday, in fact, I was aware, in the middle of a lovely day when I’d been hiking and eating delicious food and spending time with a dear one, that I felt sad.  I didn’t really know why; all I knew was that I had this little pain in my heart, and my shoulders were curled around me, and my face had that prickly feeling that means if somebody says just the right thing, I’ll start to cry.  A common response in the past might have been, “What the hell’s my problem?” – judge, or else, “Well that’s odd.  On to the next thing” – suppress.

Instead I said, “I’m feeling kind of sad.  I wonder why?”

He held me, and in a little while, as I listened, I was able to identify it – or at least maybe – and begin to talk to him about it.  The content is too personal to go into here, but suffice to say that I was afraid, and vulnerable, and needed to know that he was with me.

And it turned out that not only did the sad feeling dissipate, but I got reassurance that my fears were unfounded.  Acknowledging the emotion, giving it space, and exploring it allowed me to move through it and transform it – and to have an amazingly productive conversation with someone I love.

What might happen if, when you were in conflict with someone, you took a breath, noticed what that breath felt like, and paid attention to what was going on in your body?  A tight chest, shallow breathing?  Muscles clenched, hands in fists?  What does that feel like?  Anger?  Breathe again.  Be with the anger.  Let it move, listen to it, and see what it has to say.  Is it really anger?  Maybe it’s fear, or sorrow.  What does it say to you?  What does it want you to say to the other person?  How can you choose, in this moment, to have compassion for yourself and your authentic emotions, while remaining compassionate for the other, too?

I find that paying attention to the body’s cues, rather than rushing to put a label on an emotion, can be a more productive path.  And because the body always tells the truth, the only trick we have to learn is how to read that truth with a curious and open attitude.  Sometimes it’s easy: I feel sad was pretty clear for me.  Still, when I paid more attention to it and gave it space, it became clear that there was also fear – that the sadness was about worry for a future point, not grounded in what was happening now.  Following the fear brought me to its likely source, and talking it out brought me out of the negative emotion.

As always, I long for your comments.

Published by Kamela Dolinova

Expressive arts adventuress: writing, performing, healing, loving.

5 thoughts on “The path of self-compassion

  1. I like this essay, and it makes me think about new things (listening to my body feels like a long distance call on a good day) but one thing I have never found true nor understood is the idea that acknowledging an emotion in any way helps. Doing something about it, sure, if that is possible. But to those who say, “knowing the problem is half the battle,” I usually reply, “that’s really not the half I have trouble with.” I have often found that identifying a problem or focusing on it just promotes useless dwelling and makes it harder to move on.

    1. I think it’s important to make a distinction between identifying and focusing on a problem, and paying attention to and experiencing an emotion. I could be wrong, but what you’re talking about seems to be more related to over-analyzing or picking apart a problem or issue. Doing this of course brings up the emotions associated with the issue, but it doesn’t necessarily allow their expression; the attitude can become “what’s wrong with me” or “get over it” or “I’ve got to fix this.” The emotion is secondary, inconvenient, uncomfortable, to be suppressed. The problem is that that very suppression leads to its continuing to take up mental and emotional (and physical!) space.

      The process I’m talking about is paying attention to the emotion itself, and at least for a little while, just letting it be there devoid of analysis. It is true that often this attention will initially cause the emotion to intensify as it’s brought into focus. A sadness that was just an ache may suddenly become acute to the point of weeping. But it is generally on the other side of that weeping, or in the midst of it, that clarity occurs.

      Emotion has the word “motion” embedded in it for a reason: it’s a thing that moves through the body. What I’m talking about here is allowing that movement, because it’s a way of metabolizing what’s bothering you. To be crude about that metaphor, when you get that shit out of the way, you feel relieved, and space is made for the next step of the process – whatever that may be.

      Of course it doesn’t always happen all at once; the example I used was a simple emotion with a known thing attached to it; I’d just been afraid to speak it aloud. For more complex things, it may take several iterations, but being compassionate with yourself really is a great first step to healing. Maybe you have a problem that’s about a circumstance that can’t be changed, in which case it’s true that dwelling on it won’t do much good. But allowing yourself to have emotions about it is critical, if you’re going to change the one thing that can be changed: your own attitude toward the circumstance. Getting one response out of the way makes room for other possibilities.

      As usual, YMMV. 🙂

      1. I have an easy solution to this problem! Well, not easy to implement, but an easy distinction. Thinking about something with no action toward change in mind is rumination and will get you stuck in your head, thinking in infinite loops of shoulds and absolutes. Thinking about actions you can take to change the situation is productive and is more likely to bring about change.

  2. Wonderful post! all the things I’ve been learning this year through MBSR and practice in mindfulness. To be curious. Look at the emotion. FEEL it. Talk about it. Thanks!

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